Riccardo Patrese: Nigel Roebuck's F1 Legends

Riccardo Patrese on the podium after winning the 1991 San Marino Grand Prix

Patrese won the 1990 San Marino GP

Grand Prix Photo

Riccardo Patrese is one of those racing drivers who ages well, I thought again when I saw him in Monaco a few weeks ago. Greying a little, and strolling around with a son much taller than he is, he has the look of a man at peace with himself.

For much of his career, though, I avoided him, after a brief exchange at Zandvoort in 1979. He had crashed in what Jackie Stewart would call ‘a fairly important way’, and when I later asked him what had happened, he gave me advice not only anatomically impossible, but also, I thought, bloody rude. That being so, I made a similar suggestion to him, and stalked off, siding with those who thought him a brat.

Thus we had one those ridiculous ‘situations’, and it endured until Patrese joined Williams years later. “Look,” Ann Bradshaw, the team’s PR said to me one day, “I love you both, and it’s stupid you don’t talk to each other.” In the motorhome Riccardo and I shook hands, exchanged apologies, and were friends ever after.

“I think,” he said, “that maybe I often used to behave like that in those days. Everyone thought I was arrogant, but actually I was shy. I was very young still, and didn’t know any of the other drivers very well. And I must admit, I was very intense.”

From the archive

Disliked, too. Riccardo was one of those young drivers very quick from the outset, and often drove over his head in those early days. But what affected him more than anything was the accident at Monza in 1978, which cost the life of Ronnie Peterson.

Other drivers judged Patrese culpable for the chain-reaction disaster, which occurred within seconds of the start. It seemed not to matter that the blame lay plainly elsewhere: this upstart was a natural whipping boy, who needed to be taught a lesson. If Patrese’s entry for the next race, at Watkins Glen, was accepted, they said, they wouldn’t take part. Thus they effectively had him banned for a race.

“It was because they didn’t like my attitude over the season, but by timing it when they did, it looked as if they were punishing me for the Monza accident. Psychologically, I had no problem with that, because I knew it hadn’t been my fault But it took a long time to forget how the other drivers treated me.”

Many years on, one of them told me that this was the only incident in his career of which he felt truly ashamed. It had been a witch-hunt, nothing more or less, and one of the loudest voices, sad to say, was that of James Hunt. To the end of Hunt’s life, the rift between himself and Patrese was never healed.

A karting world champion in 1974, Riccardo came into F1, via F3, with Shadow in 1977, and spent years — too many of them — with Arrows, then as now a fringe team. Bernie Ecclestone was always a fan, and tried to get him to Brabham in 1979, but Patrese was starry-eyed about Ferrari, and declined to sign long contracts, so as to be free to accept the offer, which was constantly promised, but ultimately never delivered.

In 1982, finally, he committed to Brabham, scoring his first Grand Prix win, at Monaco, and his second, at Kyalami, the following year. For ’84, though, Ecclestone unfathomably replaced him with the overrated Teo Fabi, and Riccardo, against his better judgement, signed for the Euroracing Alfa Romeo team. Two seasons in the deep wilderness followed.

Patrese always tolerated Mansell’s excesses with admirable fortitude.

“The cars were hopeless, and I was so angry about it that, by 1985, it was beginning to affect my private life. I can remember one day saying to myself, ‘Hey, Riccardo, you have to do something’. I mean, I was not smiling at all! I was a turning point I changed my approach, my mentality, everything — I still don’t know how l did it. After that, life became easier.”

Ecclestone has been really close to very few drivers, but Patrese was one of them, and so he went back to Brabham for two more years.

“It was lucky for me that Bernie and I were friends. When he decided to give up being a team boss in 1987, he recommended me to Frank Williams.”

This was to be the most productive relationship of Riccardo’s career.

“When I went to Williams,” he said, “it was like a camera which had finally come into focus.” Soon everyone in the team became very fond of him, not least because of his excellent rapport with Patrick Head — not least, either, because he was much easier to live with than Nigel Mansell, who returned to Williams in 1991. Rather more of a team player, too.

“You’d call Riccardo up,” said Head, “ask him to test at a moment’s notice, and he’d say, ‘Fine. No problem. I’ll be there’. He’s not a selfish man, that’s the point, which is quite rare in a racing driver. His ego’s under control, too. Which is also quite rare.”

Speaking of egos, in 1991 Mansell said this: “I take Riccardo’s speed this year as a great compliment to me.” Er, how so? “Well, because I’m the only one who can motivate him.” Had Patrese been inclined to return the back-handed compliment, he might have suggested that perhaps Mansell had overdone the motivation: it was not until Silverstone, after all, that the great man managed to out-qualify him.

As it was, Patrese always tolerated Mansell’s excesses with admirable fortitude. And although the Williams-Renaults were not conspicuously reliable in 1991, Riccardo had a very fine season, with four pole positions and a couple of victories.

While not on the same page, week in, week out, as Senna or Prost, when the mood was on him Patrese was a magnificent racing driver, and my abiding memory of him is in final qualifying at Estoril that year.

Early in the session his own car blew up, and his behaviour was pure Latin theatrical as he stomped back to the pits. There the spare Williams sat but, under the terms of Mansell’s contract, it was for his use alone. Not until the last five minutes, when it was clear that Nigel would not need it, was Riccardo permitted to climb aboard.

There had been no opportunity for set-up work, and the Renault V10 was of an earlier specification, but Patrese had ire and adrenalin to spare; after a single warm-up lap, he shoved Senna, Berger and Mansell aside, and put himself on pole. He won the next day, too.

Riccardo Patrese leads at the start of the 1991 F1 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola

Patrese started from pole for the 1991 San Marino GP

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Williams went ‘active’ for 1992, and although their performance advantage was enormous, Patrese was less at ease, and rarely now on terms with Mansell.

“I admit I prefer passive cars,” he said, “because they have so much more feel. Nigel either has more bravery, or less imagination, or both.”

He finished second to Mansell in the world championship, and then left for Benetton, with whom he had signed when it seemed that Frank would run Prost and Mansell in ’93. Almost immediately, Riccardo learned that Mansell was quitting F1, that he could have stayed after all.

“That’s life, isn’t it?” he shrugged. “Two weeks after I had signed with Benetton, there was a chance for me to stay with Williams, but I said, ‘No, Riccardo, if you’ve signed something — even given your word — that’s if.”

From the archive

Sadly, Benetton behaved differently when it came to the second year of his contract, and at the end of a disappointing 1993 season, partnering the youthful Michael Schumacher, he had to accept that his 256-race F1 career was over.

There were only six victories, fewer by far than might have been predicted when he blitzed into F1 in the late 1970s, but I’ll warrant that Patrese got more pure pleasure from his racing life than any of his more highly touted colleagues. In a paddock, he was patently a happy man. Away from it, too, thanks to the divine Suzy and their three kids, to whom he is devoted.

It was never in Riccardo’s nature to be flashy — there were to be no private jets or helicopters for him — and nor was he obsessive about money, which also stood him proud of your average GPDA member.

“I know other drivers make much more than I do,” he would say, “but I can make a good life on what I earn, and I think what Frank pays me is correct for a driver of my record.”

Perhaps, on reflection, Patrese left F1 at the right time, for he had little in common with the average driver of the 1990s, preferring Beethoven to the inevitable ‘Phil Collins and George Michael’, and devoting himself, as well as to golf and skiing, to unusual hobbies, like collecting classic watches and rare Marklin model trains. If he kept an apartment in Monte Carlo, home was always Padua, where he was born, where he went to university.

You can tell a lot about a driver, I have found, from talking to his mechanics, and among them Patrese was always adored, perhaps because he never took them for granted. F1 drivers are invariably tardy when it comes to reaching for their wallets, but in Adelaide, Riccardo would always treat the entire team to a memorable end-of-season dinner. Folk remember these things.

It was a sign of the team’s affection for him that Patrese was invited to have a run in the Williams-Renault FW18 late in 1996. Riccardo set a time which would have qualified him in the first couple of rows at the British GP. I wrote about it at the time, and later a letter of thanks came chattering over my fax.

Unlike some, Riccardo Patrese will always be one of those retired drivers you hope you’ll run into in the paddock at Monza or wherever. Absurd now to think how long we avoided each other.

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